Catholic Ireland’s Confession Box – Irish Times Initiative

Yesterday I posted a blog that asked the question: ‘Is the Catholic Church Losing the Irish People?’ Coincidentally, yesterday’s Irish Times ran a lengthy and soul-searching reflection by Derek Scally on a similar topic.

Scally, it seems, has concluded that yes, the Catholic Church already has lost the Irish people. But he argues that it is dishonest to simply blame the ‘institutional church,’ concluding his article with a call for people to submit ‘confessions’ to an online ‘confession box’, via the Irish Times. This initiative is grounded in the conviction that the Irish people should reflect on what went wrong in their relationship with the Catholic Church:


Do you have a story of Catholic Ireland you’d like to share? Something you saw at the time but didn’t say? A lingering memory of the controlling mechanism and how you responded to it? Or a confession – of complicity or failure – you want to get off your shoulders? Email us at [email protected] Where requested, your anonymity will be protected.

Scally’s article is headlined with quotations that reference the clerical abuse scandals, something I did not mention in my post yesterday, but which cast a shadow over everything written about the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The headline quotes certainly catch the eye:

‘His house was always filled with children but as a teenager I shrugged it off’: ‘It wasn’t just priests or politicians who kept Catholic Ireland alive. It was also us, the Irish people.’

Scally, a correspondent based in Berlin, shares his personal story of growing up in a parish served by Fr Paul McGennis, an abusing priest. He counts himself among those who saw something strange about Fr McGennis, but did nothing about it.

Scally’s personal story is the springboard for a prolonged comparison between the authoritarianism and conformity of Catholic Ireland, with that of communist East Germany.

I recommend reading Scally’s article in full, but here are a few snippets:

How many of us, as John Banville put it, knew but didn’t know? Saw but didn’t see? How many people in Ireland, I wonder, still nurse a silent sense of unease that their small piece of the clerical abuse puzzle, had it been shared, might have prevented bad things happening to others?

It is 20 years since McGennis vanished in disgrace, and St Monica’s has been in decline ever since. Altar servers are a thing of the past, even at Christmas Mass. And there is no time or space in a 35-minute express lane service for reflection on the Catholic faith, or on Catholic Ireland.

Whatever happened to Catholic Ireland, anyway? A century ago Yeats told us how romantic Ireland was dead and gone, and with O’Leary in the grave. But where is Catholic Ireland’s grave? Was it even buried? Who attended the funeral? How did Catholic Ireland live, work, collapse?

For years I’ve carried around with me these unanswered questions about our national phantom. A while back they bubbled to the surface in the unlikeliest of places: a Berlin museum dedicated to the history of the vanished East Germany.

Standing before photographs showing members of the socialist state’s many mass organisations, marching around in sweaty uniforms, it was easy to feel superior for having escaped such a fate.

Then I thought of the Catholic boy scouts, the sweaty altar boy gear, the priests in polyester. Squinting my eyes, images of May Day marches in East Berlin looked quite like images of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress or the 1979 papal visit. And how familiar to someone raised in Catholic Ireland the negative aspects of East Germany highlighted in the museum: a closed, conservative, narrow society with enormous social pressure to conform.

… Despite crucial differences, both East Germany and Catholic Ireland exerted control over its citizens with institutions and ideology so powerful that they prolonged the states’ existence long after the majority had stopped believing.

Yet, of the two countries, only Germany is making a methodical effort to come to terms with its recent past. There are countless museums and foundations offering exhibitions, publications and events that put the former East in its social, historical and cultural context. Berlin’s state-run museum performs a remarkable task: posing questions that turn the mirror on visitors.

… As Ireland moves from remembering the 1916 Rising to the subsequent battles over independence, the time has come to locate and exhume the shallow, unmarked grave of Catholic Ireland. The cause of death has been established, but we still need to discuss the reasons – positive and negative – behind its long life.

Irish people may have replaced Sunday Mass with Sunday shopping but, for good or ill, centuries of Catholic faith remains deep in our bone marrow. Fetishising property, food, facial hair or single-source coffee are all poor distractions from a deeper truth: we are a post-Catholic people adrift, unsure of our values because we are in denial about our past and our own role in it.

So perhaps it’s time for this nation of talkers to become a land of listeners. For younger generations to listen to – without judging – older generations who faced very different choices and pressures. Or reaching out to the priests and nuns who, after a life of community service, face an old age of isolation and clan liability over the sins of a few.

I think Scally is right that the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland merits greater reflection than we have seen thus far. Whether this Confession Box initiative can stimulate that remains to be seen.

Meaningful engagement with Ireland’s religious past probably requires systematic input from representatives of both church and state, as well as the ordinary people who Scally writes about it. It probably requires something akin to the ‘transitional justice’ processes we see in states emerging from difficult and violent periods, which can include truth and reconciliation commissions or the collection of oral archives. As Scally picks up on, there’s a sense that the various public inquiries into clerical sexual abuse have not addressed the problem on a societal or cultural level.

But the so-called ordinary people might be the best place to start in coming to terms with this past. My 2016 book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, profiles examples of people who are trying to change and renew faith in Ireland – working outside or in addition to the institutional structures of the Catholic Church.

Scally seems to assume that most people in post-Catholic Ireland don’t have much faith left. My research indicates it is not as straightforward as that. Those who still have some commitment to sustaining the Catholic Church, albeit in a renewed form, might hold the key to stimulating initiatives to help the Catholic Church deal with its past.